Vanderbilt's Nondiscrimination Nonsense

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By Travis C. Barham, CP Guest Contributor
February 14, 2012|12:00 pm

Recently, Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos' "message" on "nondiscrimination" announced the end of any meaningful religious freedom at Vanderbilt. Now, religious student organizations must accept any student – no matter how hostile to the organization's beliefs – as a member, and allow any student to seek leadership positions.

However, this new policy ignores recent history, the three values that Chancellor Zeppos invokes to support it, and the chaos it will create on campus.

Supposedly underlying the new policy is Vanderbilt's "foundational belief" that "discrimination is wrong." Yet the Chancellor fails to mention that this "foundational belief" never required the policy he now imposes.

For decades, Vanderbilt's nondiscrimination policy exempted religious groups, protected them from university interference in their internal affairs, and proclaimed that "the University does not limit freedom of religious association." But just over a year ago, in December 2010, Vanderbilt – under the Chancellor's leadership – suddenly and secretly changed its policy to eliminate these long-standing protections. In so doing, it adopted a position akin to one the Supreme Court unanimously struck down recently as violating religious freedom. Then administrators started scrutinizing student groups' constitutions, sparking the controversy that led to the announcement.

The Chancellor invoked a "sense of inclusiveness, of everyone being able to take part fully in the Vanderbilt experience." But this already occurs. Most every student organization welcomes anyone to participate in its activities. Christian groups want non-Christians to attend their events so they can hear the Gospel, just like Muslim Student Association wants non-Muslims to hear about Allah. But just because anyone can participate does not mean anyone should be able to lead these organizations or select their leaders. As Justice Samuel Alito recently observed, "When it comes to the expression and inculcation of religious doctrine, there can be no doubt that the messenger matters."

Next, the Chancellor claimed that Vanderbilt "does not seek to limit anyone's freedom to practice his or her religion." Yet in the next breath, he said all groups must "observe our nondiscrimination policy." But what if members of the Latter Day Saints Student Association believe that their religion requires them only to let Mormons lead their studies? What if the Presbyterians in Reformed University Fellowship would violate their religion if they allowed Catholics to lead their meetings and promote papal authority? Religious freedom – according to a unanimous Supreme Court – protects these students from being forced to accept these unwanted ministers and leaders. But their religious freedom matters little to the Chancellor because he will no longer let them protect the mission, identity, and integrity of the groups through which they seek to practice their religions on campus.

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Nor does the Chancellor appreciate the chaos his policy will spark. For example, anyone who does not like a group's message can easily silence it. All he must do is seek a leadership position while making his opposition to the group's goals clear. When he is voted down, he can traipse down to Student Affairs and file a discrimination charge. Then Vanderbilt's bureaucracy will tie the group up for months in red tape and possibly kick it off campus.

Furthermore, imagine if this policy applied to all groups (as some administrators suggest). College Republicans would have to accept an aspiring Barack Obama as its leader; College Democrats would have to do likewise for an up-and-coming Newt Gingrich; and Dores for Israel would have to follow a Mahmoud Ahmadinejad devotee. Perhaps to avoid these consequences, the Chancel¬lor's statement only targeted religious groups.

In so doing, isn't the Chancellor then discriminating based on religion? Why should non-religious groups be treated differently than religious ones? If he believes "[i]ndividuals must be judged as individuals, not as members of groups," why can College Republicans, Dores for Israel, etc. still exclude students who disagree with their objectives? Why can fraternities and men's glee clubs exclude women, and sororities do the same to men?

Fortunately, the Supreme Court just blazed the path out of this nondiscrimination nonsense. The justices addressed what happens when nondiscrimination values collide with "the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission." They answered unanimously: "The church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way."

Vanderbilt should likewise respect its students' freedom of association and religious freedom. The Chancellor sparked this controversy by secretly changing policies; he can end it by reversing course and allowing religious organizations to govern themselves according to the dictates of their faith. For decades, these groups have enriched campus life, and with their freedoms intact, they will continue to do so for decades more.

Since joining ADF in 2006, Travis C. Barham has been actively involved in litigation to preserve religious freedom and freedom of speech on college and university campuses across the nation.
 

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